December 18, 2017

In Search of Latitude 0°:Between Hemispheres in Ecuador!

Many folks flock to what they presume is the Earth’s equator just north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city at Mitad del Mundo. They are greeted by egg-balancers, mariachi bands, and all manner of methods to separate the credulous from their money, but alas, not science. There seems to be something about latitude 0 degrees that makes people just throw common sense to the wind. Something magical should happen at this human assigned point, and an army of profiteers seems sure not to disappoint them.

But now, there is an alternative.

Sitting off on an alternate eastern road to Otavalo is a small park established recently at marker 47 along the Panamerican Highway. Seated in the shadow of 18,996 foot high Mount Cayambe near the town of the same name, this park is very near one of the highest points that the equator passes through at 15, 387 feet on the volcano’s slopes. Adorned with a giant orange zenith mirror tube to reflect the Sun on the equinoxes, the site is hard to miss from the road. And guess what? Science does indeed occasionally prevail there!

We arrived, GPS in hand, on a recent sunny morn. An older site is perched a few hundred yards south of the location, and no doubt the true equator oscillates between the two sites due to our old friend, the Chandler effect. At 9 AM, our party pretty much had the site to ourselves, and donations were asked for, but not mandatory. If nothing else, the circular shaped park offered stunning volcanic views on such a clear day. A short talk was given courtesy of the Quitsato Project which works to promote scientific awareness, which didn’t violate the laws of known physics, astronomy, or hard boiled eggs.

Truth be told, a lot of people have a tough time wrapping their brain around the idea that the equator is just an imaginary line that spans the girth of our home world. Something magical must occur there, we surmise, just to prove that we’ve made it! 24,901.5 miles long, our Equator bisects no less than 14 countries. Its highest point in the profile is in Ecuador, as mentioned above. Of course, the sun transits the zenith during the two equinoxes each year, and theoretically, you would have an unbiased view of the sky in both hemispheres, that is if your horizon is unobstructed and there was no low atmospheric extinction to take into account, something that in reality never happens. The prime meridian, International date line, and the respective Tropics and geo- and magnetic poles are other assigned points and lines that are often hard to peg down precisely. Much of the equator passes through wilderness, commemorated only by wasp or fly. Still, if there’s one thing that we humans love to do, it’s to draw lines on round things. As we get familiar with more of the geography of the Solar System, expect more respective equators to be charted. As for if they will one day have there own respective parks its hard to tell.

Of course, being that “Ecuador” has the root of “Equator” in its name, many flock to latitude 0 shortly after arrival in Quito. Don’t forget, Ecuador is also a land of remarkable geologic and biological and cultural diversity; these are some of this countries’ true treasures. Still, it is fun to hop back and forth between the hemispheres, racking up the excursion points. For first timers, here is a brief equator survival guide. First, to clear up some misconceptions. At the Earth’s equator, you cannot;

  • Balance an egg on end during the equinox any better than you could achieve anywhere else in time and space;

  • Demonstrate a reversal of the Coriolis effect in a wash basin between hemispheres; the structure of the basin used and the direction its poured have a much bigger say over small scales. Over large scale tropical storms, its another matter…

  • The weather is always the same along the equator. A drive from cool, high altitude Quito to muggy, Miami-like Guayaquil along the Ecuadorian coast can easily disprove this hypothesis.

If anyone approaches you with these bits-o-woo, be assured that some pseudo-science is afoot. Feel free to send em’ our way, as we do tend to attract the bargain basement hoaxer types.

So, what cool facts are there about latitude zero? Well;

  • At 0 north, you’re moving at about 1,000 miles per hour eastward. The equator would be a prime spot for a spaceport or space elevator, and most space fairing countries try to place their launch complexes as far south as they can to take advantage of this effect. Can you feel the speed?

  • Yes Virginia, the equator moves, as defined by “an imaginary plane at right angles to the poles…” this wobble varies up to 15 meters per 15 month odd period and can itself vary, due to the fluid motion of the Earth’s liquid core, the breaking action of the tides, and even the oceanic and atmospheric temperature variations. In theory, a hand held GPS with an accuracy of 10 meters or greater could map this effect over time… which would an uber-cool (and probably never done) science project. As a science teacher in training, I’d give you an A++ for this one!

  • Sunrise and sunset are quick affairs at low latitude, with twilight sometimes only lasting about ½ an hour before blazing sunlight brings on the heat. Anyone who has lived in polar climes knows the reverse of this, where twilight can last for months!

Of course, you don’t have to be precisely on the equator to notice these curious effects, just near it. Writer Bob Berman further relates his own equatorial fiasco, and its worth pointing out that the new park in Cayambe is a worthy alternative to the sites selling 0 latitude around the world. That is, at least until Starbucks opens up shop on the Martian equator…

Editorial Note: The above picture of the equator in Ecuador is available on our creative commons sister site, Pictures of Travel Places.




  1. Nodin says:

    Knocked my socks off with knloewdge!


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